Storming the News Gatekeepers

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

NEW YORK -- Aboard the crowded D train, rumbling into Brooklyn on the Manhattan Bridge, the inevitable rant explodes. A rant courtesy of Faye Anderson, whom we'll call Ms. CJ, a.k.a. Citizen Journalist. A rant directed at us, Mr. MSM, a.k.a. Mainstream Media, for all our perceived faults.

"It's not you, the journalist, it's the institution," Ms. CJ tells Mr. MSM. "You're not telling the whole story. . . . You've lost your credibility."

We listen, take notes, check if the tape recorder's working. No telling what Anderson might do if she's misquoted.

She's saying anyone can be a journalist, at least anyone with an Internet connection. Start a blog, she says, that's easy. (Hers is called Anderson at Large, nearly three years old and one of the more prominent blogs in the growing Afrosphere, the African American online political sphere, where Field Negro, Jack and Jill Politics and African American Political Pundit also are must-go-to sites.) Learn how to record a podcast, no sweat. (A few weeks ago she attended a podcasting camp in Boston.)

We wanted to say, hey, it's not that simple, this journalism thing, but we hold our tongue and keep listening. Fact is, independent of the candidates, voters -- you -- are interacting with the 2008 presidential election at an unprecedented level because of the Internet, YouTubing, Facebooking, Wikipedia-ing, et al. So why not call yourself a journalist and cover the campaign, too? Whether or not we MSMers like it, the loose, undefined, evolving cadre of CJs are here to stay.

They're blogging up a storm over at Huffington Post, on the liberal site's CJ-centric Off the Bus section. High school and college students are writing for Scoop08, where relatively experienced student journalists are guiding inexperienced student CJs. "This is the future of journalism, I think: journalists working with citizen journalists," says Scoop's co-founder, 18-year-old Alexander Heffner. MTV, not to be outdone, has launched its own CJ-oriented project. By January, a team of "mobile youth journalists," or MyJos, will be assigned to cover each state from their own point of view.

Citizen journalism is bringing folks, young and old, into the public square, giving voice to those who, in the pre-Internet era, may have felt voiceless.

But some challenge the value of all this citizen involvement. Questions pop up. Is it really "journalism"? Are "they" really "journalists"? What's the difference between citizen journalists and bloggers who write about politics?

"The term 'citizen journalist' has an Orwellian ring to it," says Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur," who's criticized the Web 2.0-Wikipedia world, where everyone can become their own editors.

"People are becoming Big Brother, either with a camcorder or a keyboard, and following the candidates around. It's ridiculous. You can't just be a great journalist, the same way you can't be a great chef or a great soccer player."

Journalists, he continues, "follow a set of standards, a code of ethics. Objectivity rules. That's not the case with citizen journalists. Anything goes in that world."

And sometimes the facts go out the window.

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